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Friday, April 14, 2017

Opera Review: The Last Waltz

Many partings mark the Met's new Rosenkavalier.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kiss the girls: Octavian (Elīna Garanča) woos the Marschallin (Renée Fleming) in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
 The end of an era is the subject of Robert Carsen's fascinating new production of Der Rosenkavalier which bowed at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night. Updated to Vienna in 1910 (the year of the opera's genesis) this show crackles with nervous energy, a wild party on its final round of the night. Fittingly, this show also marks Renée Fleming's final appearances as the Marschallin in this opera, a part she has played at the Met since the year 2000.

Ms. Fleming does not have the same voice as 17 years ago, and her silvery upper register does not provoke the same thrills as in seasons past. However, she remains a consummate singer of intelligence and control, and she shows a deep understanding of what makes the Marschallin tick. This was eminently clear in the great Act I monologue, where time itself seemed to stop for her reflections on aging, a profound moment in this madcap show. She was powerful in the painful breakup scene that ends this act, and proved a majestic vocal and physical presence in the all-important final trio.

Elīna Garanča held the stage for four hours as Octavian, the 17-year old cross-dressing count who is this opera's titular hero. Ms. Garanča channeled the impetuosity and wild hormonal energy of a teenage boy in lust and love, with all the real emotional pain that that implies. "Mariendel", Octavian's skirted alter ego was played not as a travesti singer going back to their birth gender but as a "man in drag," bringing a fresh complexity to the hoodwinking of Baron Ochs in Act III. One wonders if the impetus here was Ms. Garanča's or director Robert Carsen. Either way, it worked very well indeed. Incidentally, this run of Octavian will be Ms. Garanča's final trouser role of her career.

Octavian (Ms. Garanča, in gloves) consoles Sophie (Erin Morley) in Act II of Der Rosenkavalier. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
As Baron Ochs, Gunther Gröissbock gave the big, star-making turn that this German bass has been waiting for. His bluff, bluster and comic timing created an eerily familiar portrait of a sexual predator who..we're going to say it, likes to grab women. (It's almost as if he were running for office!) The parallels didn't stop there: this Ochs played at soldiering, strutting around in a gray uniform and a blonde Hitler wig. He was surrounded constantly by well-armed lackeys willing to whip out their guns in his defense. In all three acts, this sleazy tour de force  made you want to slap the Baron, only to stay your hand and cheer at each of his well-placed and resonant low notes.

Another fast rising star is soprano Erin Morley, whose Sophie has evolved into a fully realized portrayal after a last-minute 2013 debut. She sang this part's high register with freshness and a seeming effortlessness, and yet had the gravity to make Fraulein von Faninal a determined and developing young woman: much more than a wilting flower to be rescued. Her chemistry with Ms. Garanča made the last two acts and their whirlwind romance believable, and her palpable anger and confusion sparked the great trio that brings the opera to its climax.

That trio was helped by conductor Sebastian Wiegle. He conducted a performance that started restrained, with the wild sex-waltz rhythms of the Prelude made polite. After a languid, detailed and sensual first act, he let the orchestra off its lead in Act Two for the Presentation of the Rose and the business with Ochs and Octavian. In the third act, the performance finally veered toward the exuberant. The conductor's rhythmic command and close connection with the singers showed experience and careful rehearsal, and the fact that they were taking their cues from the podium and not the prompter speaks volumes.

There are a lot of important small roles in this show, and director Robert Carsen was smart to pay attention to all of them. Let's start with Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer, here a funny riff on Caruso with a fake mustache and natty ice cream suit. In his house debut, Martin Bruck was an unlovely but funny Faninal. Another debut was that of Helene Schneiderman, a razor-sharp Annina, accompanied by Alan Oke's acidic Valzacchi. Tony Stevenson played the Innkeeper (here the madame of a bordello) as a Tim Curry-esque drag, echoing Octavian's own cross-dressing. The ever-reliable Met chorus presented a cornucopia of lackeys, servants, footmen, whores and (at key moments) screaming children, adding to the sense of a world whirling at the edge of the abyss of war.

The spare and elegant update worked well for this opera, as did the use of partitions to divide the action at key moments. The old-school splendor of the Marschallin's bedchamber was reworked into the tawdry excesses of the brothel, right down to the bed being in the exact same position. In between, Faninal's house was a study in art deco excess, with rolling Howitzers accentuating the fact that he made his fortune as an arms dealer. The final tableau was one of war, as Mohammad, the Marschallin's page-boy, was gunned down by the Feldmarschall and his troops. For this Octavian and Sophie, their romance may be short-lived indeed. 

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